PSA: Watch Out for Pokeweed!

You’ve probably seen it. You’ve seen its bright, attractive purple berries in large bunches. Maybe you never paid it much mind, but if you have young children—maybe you should.

What is pokeweed? 

Pokeweed is a perennial herb (meaning it grows back every year) that typically grows between 4 feet and 12 feet tall. It has impressive purple stems and lance-shaped leaves with heavy, dark berries that ripen in August and September and can remain through late winter.

Pokeweed | Photo by Heather M. Ross

The plant flowers until frost arrives, and then turns white-yellow and dormant until spring.

The National Capital Poison Center, Poison Control, describes the berries as a grape look-alike. As such, they’re often attractive to young children. Unfortunately, these berries are especially poisonous, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The plant goes by many names; American nightshade, Inkberry, Pigeon Berry, Pokeberry, Scoke, Virginia Poke and Poke salad, according to the National Library of Medicine. It’s a native plant to North America, common throughout the eastern parts of the continent.

The U.S. Forest Service notes that the plant is found everywhere—from the edges of forests, woven in fence rows, under power lines, in pastures, hiding in gardens and even yards.

Pokeweed plant | Photo by Heather M. Ross

It’s not all bad all the time, though. Historically, poke berries have been used to color wine, candies, cloth and paper. The young shoots can even be edible if properly cooked, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. However, it should be noted that inconsistency in cooking and levels of the toxins present make cooking pokeweed a risky endeavor and some food safety specialists advise against it.

That doesn’t go for our forest friends, though. Several songbirds, such as cardinals and mockingbirds, and small mammals rely on the plant for food. So, if the plant isn’t posing an immediate danger, leave it out for the wildlife.

What happens if pokeweed is eaten?

According to Poison Control, children who eat one or two berries are unlikely to develop symptoms, but those who eat several berries or are more sensitive to the toxins can develop stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Adults who have eaten the roots after mistaking them for medicinal plants have experienced bloody vomiting, bloody diarrhea and low blood pressure.

Pokeweed berries | Photo by Heather M. Ross

Effects may vary depending on the part of the plant eaten. Ripe berries are the least toxic and the roots are the most toxic, according to the USDA.

The National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus specified that eating 10 or more uncooked berries can lead to serious problems in children.

The best way to protect your children is to watch young children closely outdoors and teach children to never eat wild berries without checking with an adult.

What should you do if you, your child eats the berries?

If you suspect your child has eaten the berries, call the local emergency number, your local poison control center or the national toll-free Poison Help hotline at 1-800-222-1222.  One of the telltale signs is dark purple stains on their fingers and around their mouths.

Try to have your child’s age, weight and condition ready. Knowing the time it was swallowed, how much was swallowed and which part of the plant was eaten is also important when calling Poison Control.

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